Robot & Frank (2012)

2015 #66
Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Robot and FrankIn “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…

Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.

Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot offLibrary love (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.

The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.

Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Frank and robotEqually, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.

Enchanted (2007)

2008 #80
Kevin Lima | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

EnchantedYou’ve probably heard about Enchanted: it’s the one that starts out as a traditionally animated Disney film, before The Normal Girl Who Will Marry A Prince is thrown into a Magic Portal by The Evil Stepmother and finds herself in present-day New York. It’s one of those concepts so good it just makes you think, “why haven’t they thought of that before?”

Thankfully, they pull it off. It’s very funny, riffing on many recognisable elements from Disney’s considerable library of classics, and manages to produce a number of catchy songs of its own. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, managing to be infectiously sweet rather than sickeningly sugary, while Susan Sarandon has a whale of a time in her boundlessly camp (though disappointingly small) role. The rest of the cast are good too, especially a wonderfully vacant James Marsden as The Prince.

The plot is ultimately predictable, but no more than you’d expect considering the target audience — certainly, kids will likely go through all the requisite emotions, and it would probably be more disappointing if they did try anything truly shocking. Still, it’s crammed with more than enough fun invention and new ideas to make up for any unsurprising plot beats.

Quite simply, Enchanted is a fantastic concept, beautifully executed. A veritable success.

4 out of 5

Hairspray (2007)

2008 #53
Adam Shankman | 111 mins | DVD | PG / PG

HairsprayWho’d’ve thought a John Waters film could become a bright and breezy musical? It’s a bit of a surprise but, thanks to a successful Broadway version, that’s exactly what’s happened. But while the key to Hairspray’s success may be its positive attitude and memorable songs, perhaps the key to its quality — and the eventual score of this review — are the issues it tackles around those.

It’s the latter that I found must surprising while watching the film. Everything about its advertising campaign, largely young cast and candy-coloured design suggested Hairspray was a light-as-air feel-good flick — no bad thing, but nothing more than a couple of hours of disposable fun. Pleasantly that’s not the case, as the film tackles head-on issues of racism and other such discrimination, with the ‘beautiful people’ — led by a deliciously bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer — doing their best to keep down those who are in any way different, be they black or, in the case of lead character Tracy Turnblad, fat. The apparently fluffy style of the film in many ways makes it perfect to tackle such issues, showing how they can permeate every area of life, not just Serious Social Dramas, and forces those who would normally avoid the latter type of drama to face up to them. Its ultimately happy ending may be more in keeping with the film’s overriding optimism than with reality, but equally it’s wholly appropriate: the crusade against oppression has to end well here, because if it didn’t the concluding message would be “don’t bother fighting, things won’t change”.

The film’s unwavering optimism is perfectly encapsulated by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, leading the cast as Tracy. She’s instantly and constantly likeable, irrepressibly chirpy and yet not annoying — an impressive feat. Equally remarkably, she’s never overshadowed by the heavyweights who round out the cast; instead, they provide able support. Even John Travolta, disturbingly convincing as a housewife (under a ton of makeup), doesn’t steal the show — he comes close, but Blonsky’s performance holds sway. Elsewhere, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden and Zac Efron all get catchy songs and have a whale of a time — and, unlike the Ocean’s… sequels, the fun the cast is having is infectious.

The first credit at the close is an unusual one: “Directed and Choreographed by Adam Shankman”. Rather than shirking in either department, the rare combination seems to have helped proceedings: the numbers are all exemplarily executed and the direction doesn’t suffer elsewhere. It’s an indication of the music’s quality that even the three cut songs, which play over the end credits, are pretty good and wouldn’t’ve been out of place in the film itself. The first of these is clearly the actual closing number, though the decision to bump it to the end credits, thereby leaving You Can’t Stop the Beat as the final song of the film proper, was a wise one — it makes for a stronger, catchier, more upbeat finale.

Hairspray is a deft mix of issue-driven drama and colourful musical levity. Catchy, optimistic, uplifting, funny and fun, it may just surprise you.

5 out of 5

Hairspray is on Film4 today, Tuesday 11th November 2014, at 6:45pm.

Hairspray placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.